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Chapter VIII

Snap!

For hours now Tamas could almost swear he was being followed. Every now and then he’d stop walking and swear that he heard an extra set of footsteps for just a moment that were not his own. The birds in the trees stopped singing when he drew close, and the woods were too silent to be as calm as they seemed. Now, with the sound of a snapping branch on the ground behind him he was sure he was being followed.

In a flash he had his sword in his hands and stood ready to fight. “Show yourself!” he demanded. He tried not to sound nervous, but the squeak in his throat gave him away. Who even knew he was out here? If they’d been following him long enough they’d know he’d murdered his traveling companions. Agents of Queen Mahla would be after his blood for sure. Inquisition Witch-Hunters too.

Much to his horror, Tamas could neither see nor hear whoever was following him now. He’d hoped he would startle them enough to force an open attack, but his plan had back-fired. Tamas squinted as he scanned the trees nearby for any sign of anything unusual, anything unnatural. In the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a thumb, not his own, near his chin. Instinctively he threw his head back and hit his would-be-assassin in the nose.

With all his might, Tamas spun his body around and swung out his sword at the silent assailant. His blade spilled his assassin’s guts and painted the forest red before he even had a chance to look.

“Tekumah?” Tamas said in disbelief. For a moment he thought that maybe it was just another man wrapped in bandages. No, this was definitely Tekumah, the same man whom the Inquisition sent with Tamas and the others. The traveling companion Tamas had slain by driving his sword through his heart. Tamas could see the blood-stained tear in the cloth on Tekumah’s chest, and the festering scar underneath. Tamas could see those same dead eyes, dead long before the assassin stopped breathing.

Tamas poked at Tekumah’s body a few more times to make sure he was dead. He even stabbed at Tekumah’s throat a few times. He was certain he was dead this time. Though, he was fairly certain the man had been dead before. Tamas had seen his fair share of strange magic in his travels, priests of the western gods could cast all manner of bizarre spells, but nothing compared to this. What manner of man could come back from the dead? Moreover, what manner of man brought HIMSELF back from the dead? Tamas had seen necromancers from Sabura and Subra raise corpses, but these corpses were not truly restored to life, just walking around. Tekumah had been breathing moments ago.

A chill crept over Tamas as he stared at Tekumah’s lifeless body. He was sure Tekumah was dead, but he had been sure of that before. How many times would this man keep coming back from the dead and pursuing Tamas for revenge? And how could Tamas stop him?

He thought of maybe burning the body. No, a foolish idea in the middle of the woods. That’s all he needed to do, start a massive forest fire just to make sure this man would stay dead. He thought of burying him, but he didn’t know how long it would take for Tekumah to get back up again. For all Tamas knew Tekumah might come back from the dead while Tamas was still digging, and he’d have to kill him again. Tamas was the blink of an eye away from death mere moments ago, he wasn’t about to try his luck again with this assassin.

He needed to act quickly. Tamas raised his sword high over his head and brought it down hard on Tekumah’s neck. Yes, severing the head might do the trick. The first wound, in Tekumah’s chest, was still festering, so if nothing else it would take longer for this killer to pursue him again.

Tamas then drove his sword through Tekuma's heart again, and broke some branches off of the nearby trees. He pushed the broken branches into each of Tekuma's wounds. Hopefully with those there it would impede his ability to recover from his fatal woulds. Tamas cringed as he picked up Tekumah's head, forcing himself to look away from the lifeless eyes, and he perched the head on the end of one of the tree-branches.

Tamas scurried off from there, heading further up the mountain. Every now and then he looked back, to see if there was any sign of the assassin following him. No sign of the assassin, but that proved nothing.

. . .

Murder was something Caolan was not prepared to do. He was a general, yes, and had killed many, whether with his sword or with his commands. Even so, he was not prepared to slay another Nihilite in cold blood, neither was he prepared to have a fellow Nihilite assassinated. Thus, he’d challenged Val to a duel.

As was customary, the one who’d been challenged got to choose both venue and weapons for the duel. Val had chosen knives as the weapons and the Torn Bodice, his favorite pub, as the venue.

Caolan took whatever bodyguards he could with him, suspecting the potential for treachery, and walked into the pub with his head held high and knives ready at his belt.

Val waved to him from the bar, a mug of beer in his hand and a mostly naked tavern-wench in his lap. “Cao!” Val called out. A thinly veiled insult, though Caolan wasn’t sure what was supposed to be so offensive about a man being called “cow”. He scowled at Val and walked closer. “Your letter was a little bit confusing, why exactly are we having a duel?”

“Trying to back out?” Caolan asked. “I’ll make sure everyone knows you’re a damned coward!”

“I’m not backing out,” Val said. “No no, I just want to know what made you decide you didn’t want to live anymore and wanted my help ending it all.”

“You’re a dishonorable pig. Lowlife, backstabbing scum!”

“Most great military leaders are.”

“Nihilus will be better off without you!”

“Now those are fighting words,” Val said, pushing the wench aside and slamming down his beer. He rose to his feet and tilted his head back as he looked at Caolan in a subtle attempt to appear as if he was significantly taller than him. Caolan was neither fooled nor intimidated. “I liberated the city of Bogeid from the Arxians.”

“You burned Bogeid to the ground!” Caolan said and spat at Val’s feet.

“We duel to the death, then? Nah, methinks I’ll just cut out your tongue and lop off your fingers. Let you spend the rest of your life humiliated and useless.”

Several bar patrons stood from their tables and began clearing a space for the fight. Others began making bets about who would win the duel. Val drew two knives from the sleeves of his coat and stepped into the open space in the middle of the bar. He gave Caolan a sarcastic bow.

Caolan drew his knives and stepped into the middle as well. The particular knives he’d chosen had serrated edges on the back, as well as a small hook near the handle. His opponent merely had butcher knives. Caolan knew that he had a chance to disarm Val, and once he did that the fight would be easy. He’d surely gut this pig for threatening the woman he loved.

Caolan stepped in and made a quick slash with his off-hand, the left. Mostly it was a test of Val’s reflexes, and Val jumped away from the blade. To Caolan’s surprise, Val immediately lunged at him with his own off-hand leading, knife pointed at Caolan’s face. Caolan raised his own knife in the way and caught Val’s knife blade in the hook of his own knife’s handle. Using the leverage the hook gave him, Caolan pulled Val in closer and smashed his elbow into Val’s nose before twisting the knife from Val’s hand and tossing it on the ground. Ignoring the pain, Val thrust his other knife into Caolan’s gut, only to hear the sound of the blade’s tip hitting the chain mail Caolan was hiding under his clothes. For a moment, Caolan felt he’d outsmarted Val, and swelled with pride. Only a fool got into a knife fight without any armor. His moment of pride was cut short, however, as Val punched him in the jaw. Caolan lost his balance from the force of the blow and hit the floor.

“Calling me a bloody coward?” Val shouted as he kicked Caolan in the side. The chain mail jingled loudly, enough for everyone in the bar to hear, but even louder was the sound of Caolan’s ribs cracking. Val kicked again, this time into Caolan’s head.

Caolan was still alive, but barely conscious. Val reached up the back of his own shirt and produced a stiletto dagger. He’d anticipated that his opponent might try a trick like this, and a stiletto dagger was perfect for slipping between chain links.

Val dropped down on Caolan and stabbed all over his torso as Caolan flailed. He must have pierced Caolan’s flesh dozens of times, and the bar patrons turned silent. The only sounds in the bar were Caolan’s repeated screams and the sound of the dagger repeatedly stabbing holes in his body. All of the excitement had gone out of watching a fight, and the patrons stared in silence at the brutal execution. Soon another sound came into the mix, the sound of Val laughing. No, not laughing, cackling. For a strong man with such a deep voice his laugh was somewhere between a giggling schoolboy and an amused old crone. The tavern-wenches and patrons alike wanted to tell Val to just kill Caolan already and stop torturing him so, but they were too stunned to speak. Even Caolan’s bodyguards were too shocked to do anything, and they’d been ordered not to interfere if Val fought fairly.

Suddenly, Caolan managed to get one of his hands free, and he slashed Val’s throat in one swift motion. As Val recoiled and clutched his bleeding throat, Caolan plunged his other knife between his ribs and kicked him off.

With a groan, Caolan staggered to his feet. He’d won the duel, if one only defined victory in such a fight as “whoever dies last.” He could tell he was bleeding internally. He wouldn’t last another day, but at least he’d die knowing the woman he loved was safe.

He limped over to the bar and pointed at the bar-tender. “Strongest drink you have!” he said.

The bar-tender poured him a glass of the strongest whiskey they made in Nihilus and slid it to him. It had always been his philosophy that a man about to die deserved one last drink. It would be a way to ease passing.

Fate conspired against Caolan even enjoying his last drink, however. He heard the front door of the bar burst open, and the sound of crossbow bolts whistling through the air. He jerked his aching head around to see men and women dressed in black armor, decorated with white stars, storming the pub. Their targets seemed to be, mostly, the tavern-wenches, though they also targeted whatever patrons were sitting with said wenches. A crossbow bolt hit the bar-tender square in the chest. Patrons rose up to fight the assailants, but they were almost instantly cut down.

Soon, the surviving patrons surrendered. They dropped their drinks and tossed aside anything that could be used as a weapon. Caolan followed suit, and dropped to his knees with his hands raised.

The leader of this murderous band entered the pub next. Whether the leader was a man or woman Caolan could not tell. Whomever it was appeared to be quite thin, and wearing flowing black robes. The leader’s hair had been shaved off, even down to his eyebrows, and carved into his (“his” for the sake of argument) forehead was the symbol of the Nihilite faith, a four-pointed star shaped like an X.

“Pitiful, all of you. This den of vice must be put to the torch, and all who upheld it to the sword,” the leader said. “Hypocrites! You recognize that this world is evil, a prison created by a tyrant god, and yet you STILL engage in its sinful pleasures? Corrupt! Despicable! You talk of wanting to be free of Erets and yet you sit here enjoying strong drink and whores! The Unchained are here to correct your misdeeds!”

Caolan had heard of the Unchained. They were the most extreme sect of the Nihilite faith, people who lived a monastic lifestyle and denied themselves any physical pleasures or worldly possessions in order to achieve enlightenment. They completely abstained from music, sex, marriage, alcohol, or anything else that…well, was fun, really. The sect had all but died out, though, since it was such a hard way of life to follow.

“This one’s not long for the world!” one of the warriors in black armor said as he gently pulled Caolan from his knees. Blood poured out from the holes in Caolan’s clothes and over the warrior’s hands as he lifted Caolan.

The leader of the Unchained moved swiftly across the pub, almost as if he floated rather than walked. “Yes, very pale. You’re losing blood rapidly, bleeding internally. Those wounds are not our doing. Tell me, why were you in this den of vice and whores?”

“To duel a wicked man,” Caolan said, his voice growing weak.

“I see. He did this to you, then?”

“Yes.”

“Do you confess that you have sinned?”

“Pardon?”

“The daemons of the Void, even Prunikos herself, have been working tirelessly for centuries to free us from this prison. To take part in the pleasures of this world is to betray their trust, spit on their efforts. Do you admit that you have done this?”

It took Caolan a moment to realize what this stranger was talking about. Once he understood the question he realized that he had. He’d been lusting after Farrah since the day he first laid eyes on her. He always thought of her as the woman he loved, but never realized that deep down all he ever really wanted was to bed her. Not that he felt anyone could truly blame him, but it didn’t change the fact that he had been a total slave to that vice.

“Yes. I have sinned,” Caolan said.

“And do you feel sorry for what you have done? Moreover, do you reject the sins that have ruled over your life before now? Do you repent of everything you have done?”

Caolan wasn’t sure about that one. On the one hand he wanted to be free of Erets when he died, not cursed to be reborn over and over again in this terrible world. To even have the smallest chance at that he needed to let go of worldly things. On the other hand, there was a stubborn pride in him that insisted that no one could truly blame him for what he’d done, and he’d done more to promote justice in the world than he had to create chaos.

Then another thought occurred to him. Perhaps this Unchained monk knew of some sort of medicine, or possessed some sort of magic that would heal him of his wounds and she was asking him all of this so that she could decide if his life was worth saving. Yes, that must be it. Caolan would tell him anything he wanted to hear so long as it gave him another chance at life, a chance to do things right from this point forward.

“Yes. I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and I repent of everything.”

“Then I, Quillan, High Acharya of the Order of the Unchained, absolve you of your sins and proclaim you perfect, pure, and free. We hope your soul shall leave Erets peacefully and rejoin our brethren in the Void.”

Before Caolan could even fully process what Quillan was saying, he felt Quillan press two fingers against his forehead and everything faded into darkness.

Quillan watched as Caolan slumped, lifelessly off the bar stool. Quillan interlocked his fingers together in the shape of an X and bowed his head to Caolan’s body. “May we see each other again some day.” Quillan turned to the other patrons nearby, many of whom had screamed when Caolan dropped dead. “His soul has a chance at freedom now, freedom from the cycle of rebirth that keeps so many trapped in this wicked world. You want to be free when you die as he is? I will teach you how to be free of the temptations of this world. In time, you too will be Unchained. You are prisoners now, slaves to your corrupt bodies, but I am here to liberate you all.”

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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